There’s a much abused quotation from that German philosophical combo, Hegel and Marx, about how all great events and personalities in world history repeat themselves: first as tragedy, then as farce. Well, Birmingham is part of the world, and I fear we’re witnessing an example of what the 19th Century H & M were on about – with Labour’s devolution programme featuring as the great event and our Council Leader, Sir Albert Bore, as the great personality.
OK, maybe Sir Albert’s decentralisation plans aren’t quite up there with Gutenberg’s printing press or the Reformation. But the Leader’s ambitious blueprint – 80 per cent of council services run locally by10 constituency-based district committees with revenue budgets of £20 million or more – would change dramatically the governance of Birmingham, and provide too a potent model for local authorities across the country – http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/labour-says-trust-the-people-even-tories-and-lib-dems/.
It could reasonably be described as the most ambitious decentralisation programme seen in UK local government – and indeed it was so described, back in 2002/03, when Sir Albert launched his Mark I prototype. The city had 11 constituencies then, the district committees were labelled mini-councils, and their budgetary discretion was less and devolved service responsibilities fewer than in the current Mark II version, but the vision and authorship were unmistakably the same.
The timing then wasn’t brilliant. Labour, having run the city for 18 years, was now a minority administration, and it was easy for opponents and sceptics to dismiss the project as a desperate attempt to woo the Liberal Democrats as possible future power-sharing partners. Labour councillors themselves were split, several viscerally opposed to ceding power to their political opponents in areas like Edgbaston, Yardley and Sutton Coldfield – so no change there, then.
There was also the small problem of the law – it being discovered, quite late on as I recall, that the Local Government Act 2000 allowed devolution to individual wards, but not to three or four combined. Which meant constituency committees would have to refer up to the city cabinet not just city-wide matters like the issuing of contracts, but any decision affecting more than a single ward.
Nevertheless, both before Labour lost control of the council in 2004 and subsequently under, on these issues, the not-so-progressive Conservative-Lib Dem partnership, we did see perceptible advance in relation to both the localisation of service delivery and the devolution of executive decision making.
Services were localised in stages and to differing degrees. Some are directly managed locally – sport and leisure, community libraries, district engineers, car parks, school crossing patrols – with staff and budgets moving to district offices. Others – refuse collection, street cleaning, highways, parks and allotments – are managed indirectly, through service-level agreements and localised budgets.
Compared to most large urban authorities, and with the recent additions of housing management, youth services, adult education and community safety teams, it’s already an extensive list. But Sir Albert wants to go further, considerably further, particularly on the politically sensitive devolution front – hence Mark II, and history repeating itself.
The 10 district committees, as the Council’s revised constitution makes clear, will be modelled closely on the ‘old-style decision-making committees’ that were mainly swept away a decade ago with the adoption of cabinets and executive-based political management. They will take executive decisions – committing spending of up to £500,000 on the planning and delivery of devolved services – prepare budgets, and seek external funding to help meet local needs. And the councillors chairing these powerful committees will be Executive Members for Local Services – entitled, whichever party they represent, to attend Cabinet meetings.
Here is where the farce or tragedy begins. In Sir Albert’s model, devolved decision making extends to the content of district committee meetings, but not to their time and location, which are also decreed in the revised constitution. Meetings shall be bi-monthly – a really bad start, incidentally, since ‘bi-monthly can mean either twice a month or every two months. We shall assume, for sanity’s sake, the latter.
As decision-making meetings, requiring full officer support and advice, these are to take place, during normal working hours, in the Council House or other central location determined by the Chief Executive. The public may attend, but speak only at the invitation of the Chairman (no Chairs, Chairwomen, or Chairpersons here), and committee rooms should be arranged so as to promote discussions amongst members of the Committee, rather than between the Committee and the public.
Regular meeting attenders will know well the often telling question: ‘Whose meeting is this?’ The answer here, as far as the districts, local residents and community groups are concerned, could not be clearer: it sure ain’t yours! You can tell who bosses the UK Government from the way Cabinet meetings are held in the PM’s pad in Downing Street, and insisting on Council House meetings invites a similar inference – which councillors in largely Conservative Sutton Coldfield and predominantly Lib Dem Yardley quickly drew in arguing for the right to meet in their own areas. Sir Albert, they claim, just doesn’t ‘get’ what devolution’s about – http://www.thechamberlainfiles.com/good-evans-a-control-freak-inquiry-looms/.
Sir Albert, of course, argues that they’re the ones who don’t get it. District committees take executive decisions, and for administrative and cost reasons need to be held centrally and during working hours. Ward committees are for engaging directly with residents and community representatives, and are properly held at local venues and at times of greatest collective convenience to potential attendees. The two are simply different.
As a relatively dispassionate outsider, I wish I could suggest a compromise, like those apparently operated by other big cities with established area committee systems. Leeds, for example, has 10 area committees – an Inner and Outer committee for the East, North East, North West, South and West sectors of the city. They are decision making bodies, serviced by officers, managing their Area Well-Being budgets and, directly or indirectly, a wide range of services – and they meet exactly when and where they choose: afternoon or evening, Civic Hall or a convenient local venue. Bradford’s five area committees do much the same.
Both these cities, moreover, are partially parished and also have ward and neighbourhood forums covering areas far more genuinely ‘local’ than Birmingham’s ward committees, with their populations equivalent to small towns.
Sir Albert’s response, though, would doubtless be that Birmingham’s decentralisation will be different, both in kind and scale. And he may be right. But meanwhile, we have what should be a serious public debate about the future governance of our city being trivialised and polarised into a slanging match over meeting places. It really would be farcical, if it weren’t so tragic.
Note: A version of this article also appears in The Birmingham Post 9/8/2012